How careful is Iran’s Qods Force when it comes to covert operations abroad?
This wing of the Revolutionary Guard was accused by US military commanders in Iraq in 2007 and 2008 of jeopardizing the efforts of more than 150,000 American troops on the ground, of backing militias of all stripes, and of exercising strong influence on Baghdad’s rulers.
Yet how many Iranian Qods Force operatives did that take? One US diplomat posted to Baghdad at the time had the consensus answer: There were just eight Qods Force men in all of Iraq.
Indeed, the Qods Force has a reputation for careful, methodical work – as well as effective use of local proxies, and ultimately their pragmatic deployment by Tehran as covert tools to expand Iran’s influence across a region in flux. That explains why Iran experts are raising questions about fresh US charges of an Iran-backed bomb plot, this time to kill the Saudi ambassador to Washington and blow up the Saudi and Israeli embassies.
A criminal complaint filed by US prosecutors on Tuesday charge Mansour Arbabsiar – a naturalized US citizen with an Iranian passport from Corpus Christi, Texas – and Gholam Shakuri, “an Iran-based member of Iran’s Qods Force,” with plotting to kill the Saudi diplomat on US soil in an operation “directed by factions of the Iranian government.”
Details of alleged plot
Those who know Iran well are skeptical, but do not rule out any possibility. Mr. Arbabsiar may have arranged for $100,000 to be transferred from Iran as a downpayment of $1.5 million for the hit, as US charges indicate.
Arbabsiar may also have boasted to one alleged accomplice in the plot – an associate of Mexico’s Zeta drug cartel, who also happened to be an informant of the US Drug Enforcement Administration – that his cousin was a “big general” in the Iranian military.
While also describing a series of potential attacks to the associate, he may even have stated – apparently in secretly taped conversations – that mass American casualties as a result were not a problem: “They want that guy [the ambassador] done [killed], if the hundred go with him f**k ’em,” reads the legal complaint.
Why the plot doesn’t add up
But Iran specialists who have followed the Islamic Republic for years say that many details in the alleged plot just don’t add up.
“It’s a very strange case, it doesn’t really fit Iran’s mode of operation,” says Alireza Nader, an Iran analyst at the Rand Corp. in Arlington, Va., and coauthor of studies about the Revolutionary Guard.
“When you look at Iranian use of terrorism, it has some very specific objectives, whether it’s countering the United States in Iraq or Afghanistan, or retaliating against perceived Israeli actions,” says Mr. Nader.
“This [plot] doesn’t seem to serve Iran’s interests in any conceivable way,” says Nader. “Assassinating the Saudi ambassador would increase international pressure against Iran, could be considered an act of war … by Saudi Arabia, it could really destabilize the government in Iran; and this is a political system that is interested in its own survival.”
No apparent cost-benefit analysis
Iran has been trying to evade sanctions, strengthen relations with non-Western partners, while continuing with its nuclear program, notes Nader.
He says it is “difficult” to believe that either Qassim Soleimani – the canny commander of the Qods Force – or Iran’s deliberative supreme religious leader, Ayatollah Seyyed Ali Khamenei, would order such an attack that “would put all of Iran’s objectives and strategies at risk.”
That view has been echoed by many Iran watchers, who are raising doubts about the assassination plot allegations.
“This plot, if true, departs from all known Iranian policies and procedures,” writes Gary Sick, an Iran expert at Columbia University and principal White House aide during the 1979 Iranian revolution and hostage crisis.
While Iran may have many reasons to be angry at the US and Saudi Arabia, Mr. Sick notes in a posting on the Gulf2000/Columbia experts list that he moderates, “it is difficult to believe that they would rely on a non-Islamic criminal gang to carry out this most sensitive of all possible missions.”
Relying on “at least one amateur and a Mexican criminal drug gang that is known to be riddled with both Mexican and US intelligence agents” appears to be sloppy, adds Sick. “Whatever else may be Iran’s failings, they are not noted for utter disregard of the most basic intelligence tradecraft.”
The odd set of details means that the usual cost-benefit calculation that experts often attribute to Tehran’s decisionmaking does not apply here, says Muhammad Sahimi, in an analysis for the Tehran Bureau website.
At a time when pressure is building on Iran over “gross human rights violations,” sanctions are showing signs of working, Iran is “deeply worried about the fate of its strategic partner in Syria … tensions with Turkey are increasing … and a fierce power struggle is under way within Iran,” says Mr. Sahimi, “it is essentially impossible to believe that the IRI [Islamic Republic of Iran] would act in such a way as to open a major new front against itself.”
Previous assassinations only targeted Iranians
Sahimi also notes that, even at the height of the regime’s assassinations of opponents in the past, it did not target non-Iranians.
“It is keenly aware that it is under the American microscope,” says Sahimi, making even less likely Iran embarking “on such a useless assassination involving a low-level, non-player individual.”
Such reservations are not the same ones given by Iranian officials when they dismiss the charges of a murder plot. But analysts suggest more information will need to be revealed before judgment can be made.
“Iran does have a history of terrorism, but they also like to go through proxies – and true and tested proxies, not necessarily just anybody,” says Nader of Rand, citing Hezbollah in Lebanon, for example, or Iraqi Shiite insurgents trained in Iranian camps.
The man arrested by US law enforcement at JFK airport on Sept. 29 does not seem to fit that mold.
Not your average proxy
Arbabsiar, a former used car salesman, would appear to have been a surprise choice of the Qods Force. Yet he apparently traveled several times to Mexico to recruit drug-cartel hit men, had $100,000 from Iran paid into a US account and promised much more, and discussed the plot on a normal telephone.
“The Iranian modus operandi is only to trust sensitive plots to their own employees, or to trusted proxies such as Hezbollah, Saudi Hezbollah, Hamas, the Sadr faction in Iraq, Iran-friendly extremist Muslims in Afghanistan and other pro-Iranian Muslim groups,” wrote Kenneth Katzman of the Congressional Research Service on Gulf2000 on Wednesday.
“Are we to believe that this Texas car seller was a Qods sleeper agent for many years resident in the US? Ridiculous,” said Mr. Katzman, who authored a study of the Revolutionary Guard in the 1990s. “They (the Iranian command system) never ever use such has-beens or loosely connected people for sensitive plots such as this.”
And what kind of man is he? The Associated Press spoke to Arbabsiar’s friend and former Texas business partner David Tomscha, who said he was “sort of a hustler.” The Iranian-American, the AP reported, “was likable, albeit a bit lazy.”
“He’s no mastermind,” Mr. Tomscha told the AP. “I can’t imagine him thinking up a plan like that. I mean, he didn’t seem all that political. He was more of a businessman.”